10 of Boris Johnson’s biggest failures a year on from his election

Joanna Taylor
Saturday 12 December 2020 10:15
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(Charles McQuillan / Getty Images )

A year ago today, Boris Johnson was elected prime minister. And what a year it’s been.

From his disastrous handling of the coronavirus pandemic to his inability to secure a Brexit deal, let’s look back on his 10 biggest failures in government since then.

1. Failed to get a Brexit deal

Johnson won what many people termed the ‘Brexit election’ after repeatedly claiming to have an “oven ready deal”.

But almost 11 months on from Britain’s official exit from the EU, the UK still hasn't reached an agreement with the EU. The end of the transition period is just weeks away.

Disagreements over business rules, fisheries and enforcement remain. And the cost of a no deal could be a huge dent in the UK economy in an already difficult period.

2. Failed to uphold international law

Despite opposition from five former prime ministers, Johnson and his government tried to override part of the UK’s withdrawal agreement with a bill that would “break international law”.

The Internal Markets Bill sparked fierce criticism but was voted through the Commons by the Conservatives anyway. It is currently being battled over in the House of Lords. 

3. Failed to listen to scientists

Before the first national lockdown on 23 March, Johnson missed five emergency COBRA meetings but found time to holiday at Chequers, according to The Sunday Times. He was accused of locking down the country too slowly and causing confusion over coronavirus rules.

Similar criticisms were levelled at the prime minister during the second national lockdown in November, as Sage’s recommendation for a two week “circuit breaker” lockdown in September was ignored.

4. Failed to set up an effective test and trace programme

The government shelled out £12bn on a test and trace system that is only having a “marginal” effect. Johnson promised it would be “world-beating”, but as Sage scientist John Edmunds put it, it’s not even “virus beating”.

Test and trace has been riddled with numerous pitfalls and controversies, from the appointment of disgraced TalkTalk boss Dido Harding to its helm to a glitch reportedly brought about by trying to store tracking data in Microsoft Excel.

5. Failed to fire Dominic Cummings

After his senior aide broke lockdown rules by travelling from London to Durham with coronavirus symptoms, Johnson said:

“I think he followed the instincts of every father and every parent and I don’t mark him down for that.

I believe that in every respect he acted responsibly, legally and with integrity.”

Johnson refused to fire Cummings, even in the face of fears his trip could damage crucial government messaging about obeying national lockdown laws.

6. Failed to provide children with free school meals

It took hard-fought campaigns led by footballer Marcus Rashford and the Labour Party to convince the government to provide food vouchers for disadvantaged children over the summer. But the Tories refused to continue providing families with support over the October half term holidays, despite the fact that hardship brought about by the coronavirus pandemic was by no means over.

Meanwhile, they were apparently able to budget £29m for Festival UK 2022, dubbed the ‘Festival of Brexit’.

7. Failed students receiving their A-Levels, BTECs and GCSEs

An already stressful year was made even harder for students, teachers and higher education admissions teams by the exams turmoil over the summer.

Students were initially told that their grades would be decided by an algorithm (which was criticised for appearing to penalise disadvantaged children), before being told they could use their teacher-predicted grades for applications. This was “too little too late” for some students, who had been unable to secure a place at their first-choice college or university.

Again, Johnson refused to fire education secretary Gavin Williamson, despite intense pressure. Instead, we were offered this extremely perplexing photoshoot of him with a whip.

8. Failed to support the public sector 

Johnson said he was “very proud” of his government’s handling of PPE (personal protective equipment) procurement, despite paying £21m to a middleman for sourcing. He also sparked a cronyism row by awarding lucrative contracts to private companies, some of which were recommended by MPs and ministers, to handle coronavirus management.

But while these companies’ profits increase, some public sector workers have been hit by a pay freeze. They include teachers, firefighters and civil servants.

9. Failed to maintain unity in the UK

When Johnson first became prime minister in July 2019, he gave himself the title of “minister for the union” and vowed to maintain unity in the United Kingdom.

But support for Scottish independence has surged under his premiership, with 58 per cent of people now backing a split according to a recent Ipsos MORI poll

His belittling comments about devolution probably didn’t help: speaking to Tory backbench MPs, he called it “a disaster north of the border” and “Tony Blair’s worst mistake”.

10. Failed to take a stance against racism, misogyny and homophobia 

During his election campaign, Johnson was repeatedly confronted with his previous racist, misogynistic and homophobic remarks. But if he wanted to leave these sentiments in the past, appointing former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott as an adviser to the Board of Trade probably wasn’t the way to do so.  

Despite backlash on account of Abbott’s history of offensive comments, Johnson defended him, saying he couldn’t be expected to “agree with everyone who serves government”.

We can only wait and see what the rest of his premiership has in store for us. 

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